Free agency in the NBA officially starts at 9:01 p.m. Pacific Time on Thursday, but the Los Angeles Lakers have already struck out on the NBA's top free agent. According to Sam Amick of USA Today, Kevin Durant did not even schedule a meeting with the Lakers.
Durant is reportedly meeting with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and, yes, the Los Angeles Clippers. Even the Clippers got a meeting with the NBA's top free agent, while the Lakers are locked out. In truth, Durant is doing the Lakers a favor by not wasting their time. Instead, the team can look to sign second-tier free agents, rather than waiting for the inevitable "no" that previous top free agents like LaMarcus Aldridge and Carmelo Anthony flung at the purple and gold after a waiting period in previous seasons.
Durant's decision to not even sit at the table with the Lakers, though, is a bitter pill to swallow for a franchise that prides itself on having the premier brand in the sport. With Kobe Bryant retired, even the opportunity to be the face of the Lakers' franchise isn't enough to lure the top free agent to a conference room table.
After all, Durant came painfully close to winning an NBA title with the Oklahoma City Thunder after his Thunder led the Western Conference Finals 3-1, before falling in seven games to the Warriors. Leaving OKC to join the worst team in the West never make a ton of sense, even if it is the mighty Lakers.
More than likely, Durant is returning to Oklahoma City on a two-year contract, with a player option on the second year. That way, Durant can cash in when the NBA salary cap rises even higher in one year's time.
If Durant does leave the Midwest, the Warriors would probably be the best landing spot for the 27-year-old former NBA Most Valuable Player. For a moment, suppose Durant did opt to join the Lakers. They would still be at least a year or two from contending for a title, so why would the Washington D.C. native waste valuable years of his prime on a team that is still developing? By the way, he didn't give the Washington Wizards a meeting either, and that's his hometown team with a far more competitive team in a weaker conference.
In reality, the Lakers aren't a developing team on the rise; they're a rebuilding team working hard to dig out of a deeper hole than the storied franchise has ever been in. The 2015-16 season was rock bottom by all accounts, but the arrival of an unproven coach to lead an unproven roster is hardly the sales pitch to land a championship chasing superstar. To believe that Durant would leave the Thunder for the Lakers was always a pipe dream, despite what ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith may have been shouting earlier in the season.
LA will sign players in free agency, obviously, but the likes of Bismack Biyombo, Festus Ezeli, Zaza Pachulia and Hassan Whiteside will hardly elevate the Lakers to championship caliber overnight. No, the Lakers will probably need to improve via trades that send out at least one of their young assets to accelerate the slow rebuild that faces the franchise. Otherwise, LA will likely start the 2016-17 season with a 19-year-old rookie, 20-year-old second-year and a 21-year-old third-year as the three most talent-rich members of the team.
Durant's decision makes it clear: the Lakers are rebuilding.
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Despite their hopes, Lakers will not get a meeting with KD, sources say. — Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) June 29, 2016
However, free agency will provide a view into how the franchise expects to improve in the coming years. Financial flexibility has been a focus of LA's recovery plan in recent years. LA has $60 million to spend in the summer of 2016. Signing players on overpriced short-term contracts and maintaining flexibility for an additional year would provide a greater understanding of how the organization expects to bounce back.
Al Horford, Ryan Anderson, Harrison Barnes, Nicolas Batum, Chandler Parsons, Mike Conley and DeMar DeRozan fall into the category of second-tier free agents that will command top dollar and long-term contracts. The Lakers expect to target at least one of those players, and those players would improve the team. However, the Lakers do not expect to jump up to the level of the Spurs, Warriors, Thunder or even the Clippers in a single season.
Free agent small forward Nicolas Batum mulling over options, including talking with Lakers, source. He's flying from Paris to US tomorrow. — Brad Turner (@BA_Turner) June 29, 2016
Instead, the Lakers expect to develop the roster, add a few proven pieces and wait for the summer of 2017, when Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin all expect to lead a star-studded free agent class. If the Lakers manage to maintain financial flexibility, they could have the ability to sign a couple big-name players next summer, while using the 2016-17 season as a way to develop the young talent and allow new Lakers coach Luke Walton to settle into his first head coaching job.
If the young talent develops, the Lakers suddenly have even more desirable assets to trade away for established star players. Putting the right role players in place would also serve to attract more impactful free agents in years to come. However, the Lakers are currently not in position to improve dramatically via free agency, and Durant's decision to not meet with the team drives that point home.
So, while Durant sets off fireworks over the fourth of July weekend with his decision to move or to stay, the Lakers don't expect to have any say any impact on that decision. Instead, LA will likely look to re-sign restricted free agent Jordan Clarkson and fill out a roster that currently only has six players on contract: D'Angelo Russell, Nick Young, Lou Williams, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown. No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram should be signed within a couple weeks, and re-signing Clarkson would bring that roster number to eight players.
Even with the positively received hire of Walton, the Lakers simply don&'t have a roster worthy of appealing to top free agents like Durant. While being passed up may be an embarrassment to the mystique of the Lakers' brand, getting early notice that they have no shot with Durant should be viewed as a positive start to free agency.
Now, the Lakers can immediately get to the business of building a roster while a host of teams wait on Durant's decision.
NBA free agency kicks off on Thursday night at 9:01 p.m. Pacific Time. Teams can put pen to paper on July 7, after the conclusion of the moratorium.